Zach Davies was excellent last night, but it didn’t start that way. Not by a long shot.
The game began with a pretty non-competitive five-pitch walk to Tommy Pham that was followed by a 109.9 MPH lineout to left field (.730 xBA) and a 97.3 MPH line drive double play that ended the inning (.690 xBA). The second inning was more of the same. Fernando Tatis Jr. lined out at 107.9 MPH (.680 xBA) to kick things off and Eric Hosmer walked on five pitches.
At this point, given his season to date and the state of the bullpen’s consistently heavy usage (they covered 5.0 innings the night before), I was getting nervous. But that’s exactly when the switch flipped. After Hosmer walked, Davies retired seven straight batters before a bloop single in the fourth became the first Padres hit of the game … and then he followed that up with another 7 straight outs. It was a thing of beauty.
And it wasn’t just more good luck.
The next four balls in play left the bat at under 85 MPH in exit velocity and all but one of the balls hit over 90 MPH were hit on the ground. In other words, they weren’t making hard contact and elevating at the same time, which is exactly how Davies’ deals when he’s at his best. He also didn’t walk another batter and struck out four Padres over those final 4.2 innings pitched. By game score (72) that was Davies 2nd best start since the start of the 2018 season.
And, hey, David Ross even trusted him to go out and face the top of the Padres batting order for the third time in the bottom of the 6th inning. At that point, the Cubs had a five run lead, relievers were up, and he was likely going batter-to-batter, but he did it. And he did it against a left-handed pinch-hitter, Brian O’Grady, plus Tommy Pham, and Manny Machado. It was a really nice cap on a really nice start.
"Best pitching performance I've seen him have," Cubs manager David Ross said of Zach Davies. "He really hammered the bottom of the zone." pic.twitter.com/KaxEhx0xrK
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) June 9, 2021
At this point, I’d love to tell you that I determined the secret to Davies success, but frankly, I can’t find much. Batters were swinging at pitches in and out of the zone at roughly the same rate they always do. And while they made a little less contact overall (higher whiff rate than average), it was certainly nothing out of the ordinary. The same is true for the rate of ground balls, line drives, and fly balls. And, on the whole, there was still a pretty normal amount of hard contact.
He did have the highest changeup spin rate of the season, but it is hardly an outlier this year and wouldn’t even be in his top-5 single-game spin rates from last season. And his fastball velocity was right in the middle of his yearly average. The only thing that really stands out relative to this season or his career is his sinker Edge%, but even that wasn’t totally out of whack with where he’s already been this season.
Then again, it is elevated here lately, when he’s gotten better results, and does seem to be higher than it has been for most of his career.
So maybe it’s as simple as that? Hitting his spots on the edge of the zone, tempting batters to swing on pitches they can’t do too much damage with while limiting strikeouts but also walks. That does sound like Davies, so maybe it just all came together last night: “I’m continuing to be aggressive with the way I attack hitters,” Davies said. “I’m not trying to be too fine in locations and not trying to [focus on] one area. Being able to mix pitches, both sides of the plate.”
Either way, it was a legitimately good start against a very good team on the road and at just the right time. Thanks to Davies, the Cubs bullpen is rested for a big rubber match against the Padres today. And with an off-day tomorrow, the staff should be good to go for a big series against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field this weekend (in front of a 100% capacity crowd, no less). More of this please, Zach. We like it.